Gabriel De Los Santos strode to the microphone in a blue suit, nodded to his accompanist, and launched into "Ici Bas" (Here Below) by 19th century French composer Gabriel Faure.
The audience at the Victoria Theater at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center was spellbound as De Los Santos sang with great emotion the song of longing for lost summers, kisses and loves.
With his hand placed squarely at his heaving midsection, De Los Santos managed the middle range of notes all great tenors must master. When he was done, he bowed, and walked off the stage as confidently as he entered.
Murmurs of "He’s only 14?" could be heard rippling through the audience. Had they heard master of ceremonies Ray Chew correctly? Was this kid only 14?
De Los Santos wasn’t the star of the Newark School of the Arts 50th Anniversary Gala Tuesday night. Savion Glover was.
But De Los Santos and the other students of the school who took the stage were the focal point — just as alumnus Glover once was.
The point is this: for 50 years, this school has nurtured the artistic talents of kids who otherwise would never have exposure to such things. Along the way, the school teaches life lessons needed for talent to be turned into achievement – especially the discipline and work ethic that success demands.
"You can always tell the difference between a child with arts training and one without," said Kevin Maynor, an opera bass singer who is on the Newark School of Arts (NSA) board of directors. "They have a buoyancy of personality, a certain sense of caring and sensibility. They have had an introduction to the greater world."
And sometimes, the greater world embraces them with stardom. Such is the case of tap dance artist and choreographer Glover, 44, perhaps the most famous of NSA graduates.
He rehearsed for three weeks and performed with a dozen students of the school’s Celebration Dance Company in a number called "Din Daa."
That partnership of alumni and students, students and teachers, and alumni and former teachers, played out on the stage throughout the night.
World-class opera singer A-Larenee Davis, performed a song from Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro," accompanied by Nadine Herman, her voice teacher at NSA when Davis studied there a decade ago.
"Without NSA, I wouldn’t have known I could become a classical singer," Davis said. "She (Herman) was my voice teacher and unlocked my talent."
Herman, who has taught at the school 40 of its 50 years and is the current musical director, said "nurtured" was the right word.
"She came to us when she was 10 years old," Herman said. "I knew she had a gift, but you must bring it along slowly and let it develop properly. Too many young singers are rushed, and that’s not good for them."
On the other hand, kids are never too young to be exposed to the arts, said Larry Tamburri, the executive director of NSA, who ran the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2003.
The school, which faces Lincoln Park in downtown Newark is developing programs for babies and toddlers.
"So much of the brain develops before they are 5," Tamburri said.
Glover, for instance, took his first classes there at age 4.
While the school has seen its share of prodigies – including Glover, who as a child caught the attention of dancers such as Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. – it also serves kids who are not destined for stardom.
Camille DaSilva, 15, is one of the older members of the NSA Children’s Chorus, which debuted the song "Lincoln Park Miracle," written by Henry Rinder, a former board president and trustee of the school.
"I’m not dreaming of being a singer or a star," DaSilva said. "I want to be a scientist and the confidence I’ve learned here will help me with public speaking."
The Lincoln Park miracle began in the throes of Newark’s most tumultuous era, the days after 1967 riots.
Two Newark public school piano teachers watched arts programs cut by the school budget ax and decided to start a program of their own.
The late Saunders Davis and Stella Lass knew the need was there. And the desire. Their first classes drew 75 students, who were taught by 17 teachers on donated instruments. A $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation came in. And Prudential was behind it right from the start.
"My mother didn’t know how the corporate world worked, and wouldn’t have cared if she did," said Lass’ daughter, Hedy Bressler, who traveled from Florida for the event.
"She walked into the office of (then Prudential CEO) Donald MacNaughton and told him about the idea," Bressler said. "She said she needed money. He asked her much. She said, ‘Well, I have $60 in the bank.’ "
McNaughton gave her enough to get started and Prudential is still involved. Current Prudential Vice Chairman Mark Grier and his wife, Kathy, where co-chairs of the gala, and have made several sizable donations to the school in addition to the company’s sponsorship.
"This school changes lives," Grier said before the performance. "It has a positive, lasting impact on the kids who go there, and it’s always been like that."
Mark Di Ionno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.